Vesper Sparrows are gorgeous small birds – a wonderful study in shades of brown. They are found in open habitats where they typically prefer some bare ground in the fields were they nest. Males sing, from elevated perches, a plaintive song that perfectly matches their open, often bleak-looking home. I think that the Vesper sparrow’s song is the prefect complement to these open grassy vistas, adding a hint of loneliness through the ears in concert with what the eyes are seeing.
Vesper Sparrows are found all across the United States in one season or another. The breeding range extends from the southern Appalachians northward into Canada and well into Canada’s western provinces, then all the way south to nearly the Mexican boarder in Arizona and New Mexico.
Vesper Sparrow song is composed of pure, whistled notes, trills, and buzzy elements. It appears that all of the neighboring males in one field will share the same introductory whistles and perhaps the first few syllables of their song. Their songs are complex in that the males have a repertoire of perhaps 50 syllables that they can mix and match to compose a song. The endings of songs are the most dynamic and with the adding and dropping of syllables almost no two songs are alike.
Below is a recording of a male Vesper Sparrow singing his marvelous song from the roadside power lines in Antietam National Battlefield, MD:
Male Vesper sparrow singing at close range, Antietam National Battlefield, MD. July 20, 2012 © Wil Hershberger.
During the breeding season males defend their territories from other Vesper Sparrows. At times, they may chase an interloper away at high speed, sometimes uttering an amazing burst of notes, trills, and buzzes:
Male Vesper sparrow singing while chasing another Vesper Sparrow, Antietam National Battlefield, MD. July 23, 2012 © Wil Hershberger.
However, the real show stopper is the extremely rarely performed and even more rarely observed “flight song” of the Vesper Sparrow. Apparently, this display is mostly reserved for the end of the breeding season when the final nest is empty and the young have fledged. There are very few reports of what the male does during this flight display – here is my account. Patiently, quietly sitting on a perch, the male gives no indication of what is to come. Launching into the air as if hit by a jolt of electricity the male flutters slowly, almost straight up until he reaches a height of 30 feet. At this point he produces a frothing of notes, trills and buzzes that can only be an expression of total joy – “The breeding season is over and the kids are out on their own!” While in this exuberance he flies only a few feet higher on his fluttering wings. In the last few seconds of his song he turns sharply and flies down to another nearby perch where he sits quietly for a few minutes.
Here is my recording of the flight song of a male Vesper Sparrow:
The amazing flight song of the Vesper sparrow, Antietam National Battlefield, MD. August 5, 2012 © Wil Hershberger.
Isn’t that amazing? It is a shame that this wonderful, special song isn’t given more often so that more people could experience the bliss of this display.
Upon a pasture stone,
Against the fading west,
A small bird sings alone,
Then dives and finds a nest.